The 20 Best Country Radio Hits of 2016

I only have 2 country stations programmed on my car radio, versus 3 or 4 stations each of pop, rock, rap and R&B, and those 2 stations have the same owner and virtually identical playlists because there's seemingly way less country radio in Maryland than in most surrounding states. But I listen enough to know which singers I like, which ones I dislike, and which ones surprised me with undeniable songs lately. Here's the Spotify playlist, and the previous lists for 201220132014 and 2015.

1. Maren Morris - "'80s Mercedes"
#12 Country Airplay, #90 Hot 100
"Church" was the song that piqued my interest in Maren Morris from the first time I heard it on the radio at the beginning of the year. But when I went home and looked up her 2015 self-titled EP, "'80s Mercedes" was the song that really hooked me, that I cheered for when it wound up on her excellent debut album Hero and promoted as its second single and performed on "Saturday Night Live" this past weekend.

2. Jon Pardi - "Head Over Boots"
#1 Country Airplay, #51 Hot 100
PardiNextDoor has had a string of minor hits since 2012, but kinda came outta nowhere to land the most played song of 2016 on country radio, really one of the most traditional country & western songs on the charts in recent memory.

3. Eric Church - "Record Year"
#1 Country Airplay, #44 Hot 100
Eric Church makes one or two songs on every album that just destroy me, and this time it was "Record Year," which I deconstructed with a playlist of all the songs and artists he references in the lyrics.

4. Dierks Bentley f/ Elle King - "Different For Girls"
#1 Country Airplay, #42 Hot 100
Rob Schneider's daughter becoming an alt-rock radio darling was one of the more unexpected developments of 2015, and 2016 continued to surprise me with her appearance on one of country radio's most affecting hits.

5. Chris Lane - "Fix"
#1 Country Airplay, #65 Hot 100
Chris Lane has a pompadour and a goatee and is generally the most metrosexual-looking bro of the bro country movement, and his biggest hit is basically the funky blue eyed soul crossover jam that Nick Jonas is thirsting to make. At one point, Lane says he'll be "your Walter White high," literally a country song likening love to meth.

6. Kelsea Ballerini - "Peter Pan"
#1 Country Airplay, #35 Hot 100
"Peter Pan" is the best and biggest of the three chart-topping hits from Kelsea Ballerini's debut album, an increasingly rare accomplishment in the still extremely male-dominated country radio landscape. The lyrical trope is well worn, but the melody really elevates it.

7. Thomas Rhett - "Die A Happy Man"
#1 Country Airplay, #21 Hot 100
The country radio charts are a revolving door where songs rarely stay at #1 for long to ensure that every Nashville superstar gets a turn, so it was notable that "Die A Happy Man" was the first song to stay at #1 for six weeks in over 8 years. There were multiple attempts to turn the song into a crossover hit (a pop remix as a Rhett duet with Tori Kelly and a cover by Nelly) but nothing touched the original.

8. Maren Morris - "My Church"
#9 Country Airplay, #50 Hot 100
The other Maren Morris single, the one that I knew would be on this list back in January, which makes a good companion to "Record Year" in the country music tradition of elevating traditional country music to a kind of edifying spiritual ritual.

9. Old Dominion - "Snapback"
#2 Country Airplay, #50 Hot 100
If country radio is lagging a few years behind the urban nomenclature for baseball caps, then I look forward to a country hit called "Dad Hat" in 2021.

10. Kenny Chesney f/ Pink - "Setting The World On Fire"
#1 Country Airplay, #29 Hot 100
Country radio is often a commercial sanctuary for rock stars and pop stars who are past their prime, and I don't think Pink is quite ready to be put out to that particular pasture, but I enjoyed this song a lot more than her big pop hit this year.

11. Chris Young f/ Cassadee Pope - "Think Of You"
#1 Country Airplay, #40 Hot 100
One of the more surreal rock-to-country career transitions in recent memory is Cassadee Pope, who once fronted the pop punk band Hey Monday, did the Warped Tour and was labelmates with Fall Out Boy, who pivoted to a country career midway through her winning 2012 run on "The Voice." This year, that unlikely career twist resulted in her first #1 hit.

12. Brothers Osborne "21 Summer"
#24 Country Airplay
Deale, Maryland natives John and T.J. Osborne did their home state proud with their debut album Pawn Shop this year, and I wish their latest single had thrived as much as "Stay A Little Longer."

13. Carrie Underwood - "Church Bells"
#1 Country Airplay, #69 Hot 100
Carrie Underwood kinda steamrolls over country playlists whether or not the song is good, but every 3rd or 4th song ends up being worth it.

14. Big & Rich f/ Tim McGraw - "Lovin' Lately"
#14 Country Airplay
Big Kenny and John Rich basically blazed the trail for bro country, for better or worse, with goofy hick hop anthems like "Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy)" over a decade ago, but they never really benefited from the boom that followed. Instead, their bittersweet harmonies on songs like "Lovin' Lately" have been what have kept them hanging on to radio playlists.

15. Justin Moore - "Somebody Else Will"
#41 Country Airplay
Justin Moore is the least famous country singer who I put on this list every year, just because I really love his voice and think he has pretty consistently strong material. Last year it was "You Look Like I Need A Drink" that I put on the list despite minimal airplay, and it wound up being a major hit in 2016, so I'll root for "Somebody Else Will" to blow up in 2017.

16. Clare Dunn - "Tuxedo"
#51 Country Airplay
Another indication of how hard it is for women not named Carrie or Miranda or another "Sex And The City" character on country radio right now is that this song never took off, and I really wish it had.

17. Brandy Clark - "Girl Next Door"
#39 Country Airplay
Another one of country radio's ladies in waiting, Brandy Clark has written hits for some of country's biggest female mavericks, Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves, but her biggest hit to date still didn't get too far.

18. Garth Brooks - "Baby, Let's Lay Down And Dance"
#19 Country Airplay
Garth Brooks remains the biggest selling country singer of all time, but for whatever reason, his latest Gunslinger didn't generate much radio airplay. I liked the single, though, despite the ickiness of Garth with a Chris Gaines soul patch singing about, um, horizontal dancing.

19. Drake White - "Livin' The Dream"
#12 Country Airplay
This song has a kind of forlorn undertow to the melody that kinda contrasts with the upbeat lyric, it really works for some reason.

20. Sam Hunt - "Make You Miss Me"
#1 Country Airplay, #45 Hot 100
Sam Hunt is the white Drake (not to be confused with Drake White), pioneering an extremely Aubrey-style of talk-rapping that slides into singing mid sentence, and I hate it so much. But occasionally he makes songs where he just sings, and he's okay. This one in particular benefits from some credited uncredited guest vocals by co-writer Hillary Lindsay.

The 10 Worst Country Radio Hits of 2016:
1. Blake Shelton - "She's Got A Way With Words"
2. Miranda Lambert - "Vice"
3. Jake Owen - "American Country Love Song"
4. Jason Aldean - "Lights Come On"
5. Artists of Then, Now & Forever - "Forever Country"
6. Granger Smith - "Backroad Song"
7. Luke Bryan - "Move"
8. Randy Houser - "We Went"
9. Zac Brown Band - "Castaway"
10. Michael Ray - "Real Men Love Jesus"
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